Mother of five earns GED, tells others, 'Do it!'
By REBECCA LEFTWICH
Once upon a time, Jennifer Cunningham was a painfully shy high school dropout who never in her wildest dreams thought she would lead her own graduating class in the Pledge of Allegiance, much less publicly urge other dropouts to head back to the classroom.
Yet the 31-year-old mother of five has finally found a motive strong enough to overcome her shyness: Education.
“Six months ago, you would not have seen me do anything like that because I was that closed off,” Cunningham said. “I was told I did well, but it was very hard for me.”
It was the jumping-off point to an even bigger undertaking. Cunningham said her life has been so changed by earning a GED and enrolling in college that she is determined to spread the word about adult education classes far and wide.
“I’ve been given a chance to finish my education, and I have a responsibility to help the adult education program expand and grow,” she said. “A lot of people who need a GED never go for it, and I just want to tell them to do it. It is absolutely, 100 percent, so worth it.”
Cunningham cited boredom as her main reason for dropping out of high school. Instead of finishing school, she went to work; first at a pizza restaurant, and later, photography and department stores and a laundromat. Along the way, she married her husband, Brad, and became mother to Dryce, Lili, twins Brianna and Adrianna and the baby, Abby, who will begin pre-kindergarten next fall.
She always intended to go back and get her GED, Cunningham said, but “life just happened.” It occurred to her last fall as she was helping Dryce, a seventh-grader, with his homework – something she’s made a priority with all of her children over the years – that he was beginning to study material on levels unfamiliar to her.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to be able to help them next year, or the next?’” Cunningham said.
Within a few days, she attended her first GED class at West Georgia Technical College in Newnan. Cunningham prepared for the exam in record time, beginning classes just before Thanksgiving. Despite breaks for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Cunningham aced her Feb. 1 exam and walked the stage to receive her diploma at the WGTC LaGrange campus’ Callaway Center March 1.
“My diploma actually is dated February 1,” said Cunningham, who give much of the credit for her quick turnaround to immediate feedback and encouragement from instructors like Kathy Ellison. Cunningham said once when she scored particularly well on a practice test, Ellison was so excited for her that she shouted the good news across the room of students.
“She will never know how much that encouraged me,” Cunningham said. “I needed the challenge and I needed the feedback. It’s something I never got in high school, when I might not have gotten a test back for weeks.”
While facing the challenges involved in classwork two evenings a week, Cunningham was facing the challenges of meals, housework and child care as well. Fortunately, her family was up to the task.
“It felt weird because she’s not usually gone,” said Dryce, who took over tasks like cooking and taking his younger sisters outside to play. “But I am proud that she wants to go back to school.”
Dryce, whose homemade version of Hamburger Helper is now the family’s favorite dinner, said there were some unexpected benefits to his new responsibilities.
“My parents trust me more,” he said. “It’s not easy, but I feel pretty good about helping.”
Cunningham is not only helping her children with their homework these days, she’s doing her own. She enrolled in Kaplan University less than a month after her graduation.
“If they see me doing these courses and they walk through my education with me, I’m hoping it’s instilling the importance of education in them,” said Cunningham, who is taking classes in composition and health science as she pursues a degree in nutrition science. “I would like to think I’m a good example.”
But it’s not just her children she wants to inspire. She has a message for anyone who lacks a diploma.
“You have to find the way – it’s that important,” Cunningham said. “Just call. Try and get some help and get started. Don’t be afraid you are too far behind. You will get the encouragement and the help you need, no matter where you place on the preliminary tests.”
(For more information on adult education, visit www.westgatech.edu/adulted .)